Stress is a major contributor to diabetes, but a lot of people don’t understand what stress is or what to do about it.
When you’re threatened with job loss or eviction or the breakup of your marriage or children problems or the thousands of other potential threats in modern society, you can’t fight, and you can’t run. You just sit there and worry.
The stress isn’t over in a few hours either; modern stresses often act on us 24/7, week after week.
Over time, insulin resistance builds up. It is a major cause of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, overweight, and many chronic illnesses.
Since, under stress, most of your cells become insulin-resistant, some of that extra glucose stays in the blood and causes damage to nerves and blood vessels.
The rest of it gets converted to abdominal fat, and your LDL (“bad cholesterol”) level goes up.
When stressed, the body prepares itself by ensuring that enough sugar or energy is readily available.
Insulin levels fall, glucagon and epinephrine (adrenaline) levels rise and more glucose is released from the liver.
At the same time, growth hormone and cortisol levels rise, which causes body tissues (muscle and fat) to be less sensitive to insulin. As a result, more glucose is available in the blood stream.
When you have diabetes, low blood sugars from too much medication or insulin are a common cause of stress.
The hormonal response to a low blood sugar includes a rapid release of epinephrine and glucagon, followed by a slower release of cortisol and growth hormone.
These hormonal responses to the low blood sugar may last for 6-8 hours – during that time the blood sugar may be difficult to control.
The phenomena of a low blood sugar followed by a high blood sugar is called a “rebound” reaction.
When you have diabetes, stress may make your blood sugar go up and become more difficult to control – and you may need to take higher doses of your diabetes medications or insulin.
Stress also causes diabetes through behaviors, because the easiest way to treat stress is with food high in sugar or saturated fat.
These “comfort foods” raise our levels of endorphins and serotonin, our bodies’ natural “feel-good” chemicals. They make us feel more calm and more in control.
But the good feelings don’t last long. Our blood sugars drop again when our insulin response catches up to them, and pretty soon you feel worse than before.
Another way stress hurts us is by depressing the immune system, the body’s natural repair and defense program.
People who aren’t diabetic have compensatory mechanisms to keep blood sugar from swinging out of control.
But in people with diabetes, those mechanisms are either lacking or blunted, so they can’t keep a lid on blood sugar.
When blood sugar levels aren’t controlled well through diet and/or medication, you’re at higher risk for many health complications, including blindness, kidney problems, and nerve damage leading to foot numbness, which can lead to serious injury and hard-to-heal infections.
Prolonged elevated blood sugar is also a predecessor to cardiovascular disease, which increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Something else that affects people’s responses to stress is coping style.
Coping style is how a person deals with stress. For example, some people have a problem-solving attitude. They say to themselves, “What can I do about this problem?” They try to change their situation to get rid of the stress.
Other people talk themselves into accepting the problem as okay. They say to themselves, “This problem really isn’t so bad after all.”
These two methods of coping are usually helpful.
People who use them tend to have less blood glucose elevation in response to mental stress.
Some sources of stress are never going to go away, no matter what you do.
Having diabetes is one of those. Still, there are ways to reduce the stresses of living with diabetes.
Support groups can help. Knowing other people in the same situation helps you feel less alone. You can also learn other people’s hints for coping with problems.
Making friends in a support group can lighten the burden of diabetes-related stresses.
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